Diane Ravitch: the promise and perils of online teaching

Diane Ravitch used to be my favorite educational historian (her 2000 book Left Back is still probably the best single account of a century of school reform run amok.) In recent years she’s undergone a conversion to the status quo, which disappoints me. If you want to know why, here’s a link to my review of her later book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, which was published in the journal  First Things.


Last week Ms. Ravitch gave the keynote address at a conference of Computer-Using Educators. My source, by the way, is ESchool News: http://www.eschoolnews.com/2012/03/16/diane-ravitch-outlines-ed-techs-promise-perils/?

One promise of technology that she noted – and that I’ve also suggested on this blog – is that it can help break down textbook monopolies, although her main motive seems to be end-running state curriculum decisions.

She also observes that

Students are “bombarded by information that has not been vetted by anyone—not everything you read is accurate.”  Wikipedia, she noted, is a “brilliant innovation,” but anyone can insert their strong or biased opinions, and those opinions will remain on a “factual” page until challenged or erased by someone with proper knowledge on the subject, if challenged at all.”

I’m not sure that these two points aren’t mutually contradictory, but I agree that students are too quick to assume that any information they find online must be accurate.

Ms. Ravitch seems to have devoted much of her time to denouncing the use of technology to reduce teacher evaluations to

teacher evaluations, saying that some academic researchers believe “great teaching can be quantified down to the decimal point. They think they can deduce from these numbers which teachers are great and which can be fired on the spot.”

She continued: “They make these calculations without ever entering a classroom; they speak assuredly because they have data. The algorithm can’t be wrong, can it? Or can it? … Making public these value-added numerical evaluations demoralizes teachers. Without technology, no one would be able to make up such ridiculous ratings systems.”

Most of the evaluation proposals moving forward now include value-added assessments are just one element of teacher evaluation, and as I’ve noted before, recent studies have suggested that this data may have significant predictive value. At any rate, I’m not sure what this has to do with online education.

But Ms. Ravitch’s biggest concern seems to be that online teaching will become an excuse to reduce the size of the teacher workforce. I know a lot of educators are worried about this, but I’d note that the significant increase in education budgets (up until the recent financial crisis) went almost entirely to increasing the size of payrolls . . . not paychecks. A number of commentators – and reputable studies – have suggested that we’d be better off with fewer, better, and better paid teachers. Would online education lead us in that direction? I don’t know, but it doesn’t strike me as immediately obvious that reducing the size of the educational workforce is automatically bad.

If you’re looking for a thoughtful, balanced, research-based discussion of the payroll/class size debate, by the way, this Brookings Institution report is a good place to start:


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